Turkish Pianist Fazil Say Sentenced for Insulting Islam

A Turkish court convicted Fazil Say, the classical pianist and composer, on charges of inciting hatred and insulting Islam on Twitter.

The Istanbul 19th criminal court handed Say, one of Turkey’s most internationally renowned artists, a suspended sentence of 10 months in prison today, according to his lawyer, Meltem Akyol. Say, 43, has played piano with the New York Philharmonic and Berlin Symphony orchestras.

The court said Say would be allowed to go free, and would be subject to the prison time should he commit a similar crime within five years, Akyol said.

“I am very sorry for my country over the court decision,” Dogan News Agency quoted Say as saying in a statement today. “I am disappointed from the viewpoint of freedom of expression. The fact that I have been convicted, although I am not guilty, is more worrying for the freedom of thought and belief in Turkey than for myself.”

Culture Minister Omer Celik said he does not wish to see people, especially artists, on trial for expressing views. Still, he said, “there is a court decision.”

European Criticism

The European Commission “has learned with concern that Fazil Say, a former EU cultural ambassador, has been given a suspended jail sentence for blasphemy,” Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the commission, the European Union executive, told reporters today in Brussels.

“The commission underlines the importance for Turkey to fully respect freedom of expression in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and case law of the European Court of Human Rights,” Kocijancic said.

Turkey’s bid to join the European Union has been stalled partly due to shortcomings in democratic reforms and “recurring infringements of the right to liberty and security and to a fair trial, as well as of the freedom of expression, assembly and association,” the European Commission said in an October report.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party have also been criticized by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International for curbing free speech.

“The right to freedom of speech is under attack in Turkey,” Amnesty said in a report last month that called it one of the country’s “most entrenched human rights problems.”

Chivas Regal

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was put on trial for commenting about the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in 1915, under a law that made it a crime to insult Turkish identity. The government softened that legislation in an amendment in 2008, a year after a gunman shot dead ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink for his comments about the killings.

Say had demanded his acquittal in the opening hearing on Oct. 18, denying allegations that he insulted Islamic religious values.

The case against him was based on about half a dozen postings on Twitter mentioned in the indictment, including one mentioning a Turkish liquor and whiskey: “What if there is raki in paradise but not in hell, while there is Chivas Regal in hell and not in paradise? What will happen then? This is the most important question!”

Say’s comments in April 2012 drew criticism from some in predominantly Muslim Turkey, as alcohol is banned by Islam. Say said he was only criticizing the exploitation of religion for profit.

Holy Values

Another tweet makes fun of a muezzin for taking only 22 seconds to sing the call to prayer, asking if he has a mistress or some raki waiting for him to get back to. Another suggests that whenever people are notably greedy or thieves or otherwise bad, they turn out to be “exceedingly” pious.

“Those who say that Fazil Say’s posts should be considered within the scope of freedom of thought appear not to be completely aware of what Fazil Say actually wrote,” Emre Bukagili, a plaintiff in the case, said in an e-mailed statement today. “Fazil Say did not repeat the words of a poet, but attacked religion and the holy values of religion.”

Bukagili said the sentence could be lifted on evidence that Say suffered from autism.

“As a result of my inquiries, I found out that there are suspicions that Fazil Say suffers from autism,” he said. “If these suspicions have any basis, of course, as a conscientious person, I would not seek any punishment against him, as he suffers from a significant disorder.”